For seven years, Dale Atkeson has commemorated his days as a Washington Redskin in the 1950s with license plates on his old pickup that proclaim, "1 REDSKN." They were a gift from his wife -- "just to remember the greatest times I ever had," he said.
But California has declared his plates offensive. And it wants them back.
Atkeson, 71, said he was startled to receive a letter from the state's Department of Motor Vehicles over Christmas, ordering him to turn in the plates in 10 days. The DMV said it made the request after a local activist in the Indian community spotted Atkeson's license designation while scrolling through a long list of "vanity" plates on the agency's Web site and formally complained.
"It's not a process we take lightly," said Steve Haskins, a DMV spokesman.
California, in fact, is quite serious about keeping any term it deems offensive or racist off the license plates of its 28 million motorists. Every year, it rejects thousands of applications for vanity plates for that very reason. Because Indian groups around the country say "Redskin" is derogatory, the DMV banned it two years ago after a judge ruled in favor of the state in a case quite similar to Atkeson's.
Since then, officials said, about 18 California motorists have had to surrender plates using "Redskin" or a variation of it.
For years, Indian groups have campaigned against any use of the term, and they have demanded that the Washington football team drop the nickname. Team officials have refused. The team also has appealed a 2000 ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that bans the franchise from trademarking its name on the grounds that it disparages Indians.
Utah also has revoked "Redskin" license plates of a few drivers in recent years. But no such steps have ever been taken in the District, Maryland or Virginia.
Atkeson's license plate was not part of earlier California recalls. "It must have slipped through the cracks," Haskins said. "But once you get the letter from us you're pretty much out of luck."
Atkeson, whose case was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is planning to exercise his right to appeal even though he has little hope of keeping the plates.
"Who ever wins against the DMV?" he said. "But I don't know what the heck else to do about it. I feel like this is just going too far. I don't understand why people are going after something like this as offensive when I can't even watch TV with my grandchildren anymore because of all the horrible things they show."
For three seasons, Atkeson played fullback and returned kicks for the Washington team during one of its forgettable eras. "One year I think we won only about three of 18 games," he said.
He earned $7,500 a season. The Redskins eventually traded him to Pittsburgh. When his football career ended, he became a longshoreman in Southern California.
If, as expected, Atkeson is forced to turn in his plates to the state, he can either propose a new designation or get a standard-issue sequence of numbers and letters for his truck. He said that he may try a variation of his wife's license plates. They say, "RDSKN2." And no one is after her yet.
"Maybe the 'E' makes a big difference," he said.